A stroke of green, followed by blue, then orange, slowly transforms faded murals into brilliant depictions of Bear Hollow Zoo animals. Athens artist David Hale brings color to Bear Hollow Zoo to support the zoo’s mission of spreading a message about environmental protection and wildlife conservation.

 Why It’s Newsworthy: With a decrease in wildlife populations, zoos, like Bear Hollow Zoo, bring in visitors to educate the public about wildlife conservation. Athens artist David Hale paints murals to support these efforts. 

Bear Hollow Zoo, run by Athens-Clarke County, houses non-releasable Georgia wildlife. Kelly Garrison, the zoo coordinator, said the zoo is currently at maximum capacity. The zoo promotes respect for nature by educating the public on the consequences of harmful human activity. This includes littering, car collisions and owning illegal wild pets.

The Living Planet 2022 Report reveals an average 69% decrease in wildlife populations between 1970 and 2018. Human activity is a primary driver of biodiversity loss, and the report warns that the planet is approaching a biodiversity and climate crisis. Bear Hollow Zoo’s support for wildlife education promotes the future conservation of wild animals where humans and wildlife can thrive.

“Humans are one of the biggest enemies when it comes to why some of these animals are here,” Garrison said.

Transformation of the Mural

Depictions from Real Life

Hales’s longing to paint a mural at Bear Hollow Zoo dates back to his first visit when he attended the University of Georgia. Since childhood, Hale has illustrated animals through paintings and sketches. As a child, he even brought a sketch pad with him when he visited Zoo Atlanta.

While he works, Hale examines the Bear Hollow Zoo skunk closely, noticing its movement and individual features. He notices the skunk’s feet are different than he originally thought. This is when he realizes he has never illustrated skunk feet correctly. Hale said illustrating animals from real life is a completely different experience than using a photograph.

By using Bear Hollow Zoo’s bears, otters, birds, reptiles and deer as references, he observes the animal’s movement and sketches its features. After redefining the sketches in his studio, Hale brings these accurate sketches to life with one brush stroke after another on Bear Hollow Zoo’s buildings.

Hale’s art mainly consists of animals and plants in the forms of paintings, drawings, murals, printmaking, tattoos and sketches. In a previous project, Hale turned Bear Hollow Zoo animals into tattoo designs. He donated the profits back to the zoo. With the help of donors, the staff supports the zoo animals with enrichment activities to produce positivity.

Importance to Hale’s Family

Hale often visits with his two children, who participate in Bear Hollow Zoo’s summer camp and other events. Bear Hollow Zoo made its way into Hale’s home in more ways than one. First, his son named their cat Beaver. Then, he named their dog Alligator. After his son wanted to rename an adopted snake Hawk, Hale realized his son was naming their pets after the animals he saw at Bear Hollow Zoo.

“It’s awesome to get to be a part of a place that’s like a big part of mine and my family’s lives,” Hale said.

Hale said the zoo serves as a way to take responsibility for the environmental destruction caused by humans. His murals support the zoo by bringing in more visitors to learn about wildlife protection. Garrison said she hopes the zoo can preserve wild animals for future generations.

A Zoo Animal’s Backstory

Natalie Branand, a fourth-year civil engineering major at the University of Georgia, started visiting Bear Hollow Zoo when she was young and said the zoo serves as an important educational resource.

Branand’s connection with Bear Hollow Zoo goes beyond just visits. Her unique relationship with the zoo begins with a snake. Branand’s family wanted to give away their pet snake, named Spaghetti, because they had trouble taking care of it. They then contacted Bear Hollow Zoo, but the zoo only accepts surrendered pets when the timing, need and animal are appropriate.

When her family described it as a Yellow Motley Corn Snake, the zoo was immediately convinced to take the snake. Surprised, Branand’s family discovered their snake was illegal to own in Georgia. Now, her former pet serves as an ambassador animal for educational purposes about wildlife conservation. Branand said she is proud of Spaghetti and hopes her former pet can serve as a message about respecting wildlife.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources lists a guide to legal pets and has added new restrictions, including reptiles such as Burmese pythons, as of December 2022. Branand said awareness of legal pets is important before owning a wild animal. This awareness can help heal biodiversity loss.

Looking Forward

With summer around the corner, Hale’s murals are displayed in time for the Wildlife Explorers Camp at Memorial Park and Bear Hollow Zoo. According to the Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services Department, campers will explore the outdoors by participating in activities such as swimming and hiking. Campers will also learn about wildlife conservation through animal interactions.

Garrison said art like Hale’s mural intends to attract more visitors and grow the public’s understanding of wildlife education. By bringing in more visitors, the zoo can attract more donations to support its initiatives.

“A lot of times, it’s hard to love and appreciate what you haven’t witnessed,” Hale said.

Allyson Reynolds is a third-year student majoring in journalism.



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